Global Affairs

Brics need internal reform

These five nations have hit the limit of economic growth without political change

LONDON • For more than a decade, any politician or pundit who wanted to sound "hip" dropped into every conversation the Brics acronym.  The group comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and subsequently South Africa captured everyone's imagination: It stood for a different world, one no longer dominated by old colonial powers; a new community based on fairness and cooperation rather than cut-throat competition, one promoting south-south development rather than just north-south trade.

Today, however, the fashionable trend is to dismiss the Brics as a busted flush. The group's stellar economic performance is now largely gone. And although the Brics leaders continue to meet periodically, they seem unable to come up with anything original or meaningful.

Yet it would be wrong to write the Brics off. For although many of the group's claims to change the world were either misplaced or exaggerated, the fact remains that this informal association of nations can still make a positive contribution.

GIMMICK TURNS REAL

Few concepts have muddled strategic and economic thinking more than the Brics, a term invented in 2001 by Mr Jim O'Neill, the then chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, who identified Brazil, Russia, India and China (South Africa was added to the group later) as countries that would form the "strategic pillars" of a supposedly entirely new international system.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Mr O'Neill himself was neither an international relations specialist nor a champion for the world's downtrodden: His job was to manage other people's money, and his invention of the Brics term did wonders for his employers' revenues and his own pay bonuses. His political affiliations are with Britain's ruling Conservative Party, which recently elevated him

to the ranks of the British nobility; he now goes by the grand title of Baron O'Neill of Gately. Clearly, this is not a man who spent much time in an Indian slum or a Brazilian favela, although it's possible that he may have had a glimpse of both from the windows of his first-class cabins on airliners.

Still, his invented acronym served as a powerful inspiration not only for investors who rushed to place their bets on big emerging markets, but also for generations of academics who greeted the concept as the final proof that a multi-polar world no longer dominated by the US and a handful of other, largely European, developed economies was about to emerge; the Brics concept became the economic equivalent of left-wing "liberation theology".

So, what started as a publicity gimmick intended to jazz-up otherwise turgid economic research papers turned into political reality. After a series of informal meetings held on the sidelines of United Nations General Assembly sessions, Brics leaders agreed in 2006 to formalise their encounters into yearly summits, setting the stage for their global collective action.

And the world sat up and listened, for at least in purely statistical terms this association of nations made sense. If one puts aside South Africa - which is puny by comparison and was included more for symbolic reasons - the fact was that the Brics countries' combined economic growth rates accounted for almost two-thirds of the world's growth rates during the first decade of this century. Furthermore, Brazil, India, Russia and China ranked, respectively, as the world's sixth, eighth, 10th and second largest economies.

DIFFERENT PRIORITIES

For a while, the Brics nations appeared to be leading the agenda for change in global economic governance. As countries that between them comprise over one-fifth of the global economy but wield only about 11 percent of the votes in the International Monetary Fund, they pushed for the reform of global financial institutions. They reiterated principles of international law, such as respect for the sovereignty of individual nations. And they frequently toyed with the idea of challenging US dominance in specific economic fields, such as global reserve currencies, or American influence over the operation of the Internet.

Yet undoubtedly the Brics' biggest achievement to date has been the formal launch earlier this year of the New Development Bank (NDB), headquartered in Shanghai, with an initial capital of US$50 billion (S$70.5 billion) to finance infrastructure and "sustainable development" projects in Brics countries initially, but likely to reach to other low-and middle-income countries in the future.

Given such achievements, why are the Brics no longer taken very seriously? One explanation is that the five nations remain very diverse and, notwithstanding the smiling faces and the obligatory photographs of their leaders holding hands in a circle (a Brics speciality), they have not succeeded in eliminating national differences.

Russia and China are interested in the political uses of the organisation. They see the Brics as a battering ram against Western political domination. But Brazil, India and South Africa view the organisation as a launchpad for progress through economic development that should take place with, rather than necessarily against, the West. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi describes the US and his country as "natural allies", not a term fondly used in either Moscow or Beijing.

Nor is it obvious that China, whose economy is twice as large as those of the other four combined, sees the Brics as a priority. To be sure, the Chinese like the institution; the very first summit that President Xi Jinping attended after coming to office was a Brics gathering. But, at the same time, China has stressed much more the creation of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank rather than the New Development Bank, and appears to be investing more of its diplomatic efforts in preparing to lead the G20 group of major economies next year rather than in pushing forward Brics agendas.

The Russians are also blowing hot and cold over the Brics. In a famous incident in November 2012, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cut short a trip to Russia when it became clear that her Russian hosts had no interest in what she had to say, or in the agenda of the talks.

BIG SLOWDOWN

But the most important reason for the decline in the Brics' reputation is economics - precisely what was assumed to be the group's strongest point. The economies of Russia and Brazil are in recession. Brazil's trade surplus of US$20 billion in 2010 has now turned into a deficit of $40 billion, and jobs are being destroyed in the country at the rate of 150,000 a month. China and India are faring better, but the growth in their economies is also crawling.

In an ironic twist, none other than Goldman Sachs - the bank which invented the Brics term - is now warning that the economic downturn which afflicts the group of nations may unleash the "third wave" in the series of financial crises which began in the US in 2007 and then moved to Europe in 2010.

Leaders of the Brics countries are anxious to refute such doomsday speculation; they put their current economic predicament down to temporary circumstances, such as the drop in demand for commodities, a slowdown in China or other global economic difficulties. But the reality is far more serious. All the Brics nations are suffering from similar problems - they have hit the limit of how much they can achieve economically without changing their political systems. All are grappling with endemic corruption, income and economic inequalities, vulnerability to asset bubbles and poor institutional and regulatory regimes.

It is in the world's interest that the Brics thrive. The efforts of these five nations, which collectively account for nearly half of the human race, to boost economic and political cooperation remain laudable, even if some of their reasons for pursuing such agendas are not. So are some of their efforts to improve global economic governance, a necessary objective.

But ultimately, the Brics will succeed only if they address their fundamental internal problems and, especially, the very clear indications that the good old days - when double-digit yearly economic growth figures could be achieved without addressing the fundamental problems of their political systems - are over.

In short, what should unite the Brics from now on are fewer anti-Western sentiments and more domestic agendas for reform. Yes, baiting the West may be more pleasurable, but reforming national political arrangements is more urgently needed - unless the Brics want to go down in history as another idea whose time never came.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2015, with the headline 'Brics need internal reform'. Print Edition | Subscribe